- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A statewide right-to-work measure passed in the Missouri House on Thursday, potentially setting the stage for an intense fight in the Senate where one Democrat who’s a retired union member said she would “fall on her sword” to block it.

The measure, approved 91-64 with two members present but not voting, would bar unions statewide from collecting fees from non-members. Final passage, after an initial vote in support on Wednesday, marks a political victory for Republican supporters who had failed to gain the needed constitutional majority last session for approval.

House Speaker John Diehl said it was a historic vote and that even if Missouri didn’t become a right-to-work state this year, it was “inevitable” and the issue would keep coming up until it does pass.

But getting it to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who has said he opposes right-to-work, may be a challenge.

Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, would not say whether she would filibuster but noted that, as a retired union member, she strongly opposes the measure.

“I would absolutely fight that bill. It’s one of my core values and beliefs,” Walsh said. “To me, that’s a bill that I’m willing to fall on my sword for.”

But Republican Senate leaders have not made right-to-work a priority in the past. Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said last year that sending right-to-work to the ballot and bypassing Nixon was the only way for it to become law. Earlier this session, Dempsey said his position hasn’t changed but that the Senate will consider any measure passed by the House.

The measure is short of the 109 votes needed in the House to override an anticipated Nixon veto, although one business lobbyist said Wednesday it might be possible to gather enough support.

“There’s a long time between now and a veto override vote,” according to Jay Atkins, the top lobbyist for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The arguments over right-to-work legislation center on economic impact and fairness. Supporters say it will make the state more competitive in attracting businesses, while opponents say it will lower wages and weaken the middle class.

Except for Illinois and Kentucky, all of the other states that border Missouri have right-to-work laws. Illinois’ new Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, has said he wants to allow counties or cities to opt for right-to-work, and some counties in western Kentucky have voted to make it illegal for employers to require their workers to join a labor union.

“Right-to-work is one of the best tools that we have to make sure Missouri remains economically competitive with our neighbors,” Atkins said.

But opponents gave examples of companies expanding in Missouri, including Ford, General Motors and Boeing. They said the bill was a politically motivated attack on unions. Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said Missouri should not compete with other states and countries by lowering standards for its workers.

“Do we want an economy that competes with the rest of the world by sinking to the lowest common denominator?” he asked. “This is about weakening the power of the middle class.”

Right-to-work laws bar unions from collecting fees from non-members when the labor group has negotiated with an employer for such provisions. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled workers cannot be forced to pay membership dues but unions are entitled to collect fees for services such as negotiating the contract covering members and non-members.

Another right-to-work measure awaiting a final vote in the House would apply only to the construction industry.

Democrat Rep. Courtney Curtis, of Berkeley, said he’d been criticized by right-to-work opponents because of his bill. Curtis said unions in the construction industry have not done enough to remedy disparities faced by minority workers and contractors.

Diehl said he had no immediate plans to move the construction industry bill forward but that it could still come up for a final vote later in the session.

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